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Serving Notice

Calabasas' Sacks is becoming a force in boys' tennis

May 26, 2003|Lauren Peterson | Times Staff Writer

While trying to kill some time and stay loose between matches during qualifying for the Southern Section boys' individual tennis tournament Thursday, Calabasas sophomore Gary Sacks engaged in a lazy game of catch at Carpinteria Cate School.

As he and Calabasas Coach Marc Behrman played long-toss with a tennis ball, Sacks could only smile sheepishly, roll his eyes, and shake his head as he bobbled and dropped nearly every ball that came his way.

On the court, Sacks' opponents frequently offer similar reactions.

"He just has all the shots," said Stefan McKinney, an Oxnard Rio Mesa sophomore who was Sacks' second victim of the day, losing, 6-2, 6-2, in the regional competition. "He gets everything back and he's got a pretty big game."

With the victory, Sacks advanced to the round of 16, which will be played along with the quarterfinals Friday at SeaCliff Tennis Club in Huntington Beach. The semifinals and final will be Saturday.

"It'd be a great tournament to win," Sacks said. "This tournament now is equivalent to a really good junior tournament, with all the top players there."

In the final rounds, the 5-foot-11, 150-pound 16-year-old will join a group of mostly older, Orange County-area standouts that includes Fullerton Troy's Jeffrey Das, Irvine University's Jack Li, Corona del Mar's Garrett Snyder, Los Alamitos' Kevin McQuaid and Anaheim Servite's Jonathan Sanchez among the favorites. All are seniors except for Sanchez, a junior.

Sacks is second only to Santa Maria Righetti freshman Stefan Hardy as the youngest player in the round of 16. Last year, Sacks advanced to the quarterfinals before losing to Irvine University standout Aaron Yovan, now at UCLA.

In November, Sacks fell to Das, 6-3, 6-3, in a national open tournament, and he lost a Southern California boys' 16 sectional tournament match to Li in 2001. Because of age differences, however, he has not seen much of the rest of the field.

"I'm a bit younger," Sacks said. "Most of them I haven't played, so I think I'm going in as a bit of an underdog."

Not to Santa Barbara Coach Aaron Webster, who has tracked Sacks' progress with interest since his team was beaten by Calabasas on games in a nonleague match earlier this season.

"I'm picking him to win it," Webster said.

"He's not feeling any pressure and he's playing so well right now."

Sacks, a native of Johannesburg, South Africa, moved to the United States with his parents and older brother four years ago. He quickly made his mark at Calabasas and won his second consecutive Marmonte League singles title two weeks ago.

He had a 26-0 record in round-robin singles sets and 3-0 in doubles sets while playing part-time this season for the Coyotes (18-3), who were upset in the Southern Section section Division I team quarterfinals Tuesday.

Sacks doesn't work out with the team, instead practicing daily with coaches and higher-level players at the Calabasas Tennis and Swim Club, where Behrman is an instructor.

The absences from practice and matches didn't always go unnoticed. Some teammates complained to the coach when Sacks missed a highly anticipated match last month with North Hollywood Harvard-Westlake, so he could play in the Easter Bowl/U.S. Tennis Assn. Super National Spring Championships.

Sacks was a singles and doubles semifinalist in the tournament's boys' 16 division, and he defeated Alexander Clayton of Bradenton, Fla., 7-5, 6-0, in the third-place playoff in singles.

Meanwhile, the Coyotes lost to Harvard-Westlake, 13-5.

Behrman made no apologies and gave his blessing to any special allowances made for Sacks, who has a chance to become the first Calabasas player to win the section boys' singles title. Steve Wiere and Nick Weiss each lost in the final in 1986 and 1999, respectively.

"It's hard to balance a special kid like this with the rest of the team," Behrman said. "But they just didn't understand. We're lucky he's playing high school tennis at all."

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